THE Prime Minister sought in his Christmas message to assure Christians worldwide of his government’s solidarity. Mr Johnson acknowledged that, for many, “Christmas will be marked in secret, perhaps even in a prison cell.” He pledged that “As Prime Minister, that’s something I want to change. . . [We] will defend your right to practise your faith.”
This signalled a responsibility to honour commitments that the Foreign Office made in response to a review by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, of the persecution of Christians (News, 12 July, 19 July). As 2020 unfolds, bishops and Christian NGOs will be looking for tangible indicators that the policy has withstood the distractions of Brexit and FCO reorganisation.
Christians should beware a danger, however: the persecution of our brothers and sisters is vulnerable to propagandist manipulation by unscrupulous political interests. A just cause can be transformed, with disturbing ease, into a freighted “culture-wars” marker.
This is already the case in Hungary, whose far-Right Fidesz government has been cultivating warm relations with Mr Johnson’s administration. Last month, Mr Johnson’s social-justice adviser, Tim Montgomerie, speaking at the Danube Institute in Budapest, said: “I hope there will be a special relationship with Hungary, amongst other states.”
IN AN article published last month in the conservative Roman Catholic Crisis Magazine, Fr Benedict Kiely praised the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, as “unashamedly Christian”, and praised the country as “the only nation in the world to have a specific governmental ministry devoted to the assistance of persecuted Christians”.
The article quoted extensively from Mr Orbán’s opening address to the second International Conference on Christian Persecution (ICCP2), which was hosted by the Hungarian government in late November. Both the content of Mr Orbán’s speech and the circumstances of the conference are troubling.
Mr Orbán’s speech equated the secularising cultural shift in the post-Christian West with the lethal persecution of Christian minorities in Islamist societies. “The Hungarian government is convinced that the problems facing Christianity in Europe and the persecution of Christians in Africa and the Middle East cannot be separated,” Mr Orbán said. “Hungary lies on the route of the Muslim immigration invasion; it must defend itself.”
After Mr Orbán’s intervention, his deputy, Zsolt Semjén, the leader of the allied Christian Democratic People’s Party/KDNP, said that Christian persecution had become “more sophisticated and [taken on] more brutal forms”. Controversy over employees’ wearing the crucifix to work in Europe, and the martyrdom of Christians in Syria were two sides of the same coin, he argued.
Judges in superior courts have, with minor exceptions, supported the legal right of Christians to wear religious symbols at work, and not to bake cakes bearing contentious messages. Such friction between Christians and progressives cannot plausibly be compared to martyrdom by decapitation.
The full context of Hungary’s involvement with persecuted Christians also belies the rhetoric employed. Last June, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, said that the country supported persecuted Christians “beyond its means”. But the actual amounts dispersed to persecuted Christians appear to be more modest.
The website Hungarian Spectrum reports an expenditure of €21 million in 2017-19 on Hungary Helps, the country’s dedicated aid service for Persecuted Christians. Between February and April last year, the Hungarian government spent €31 million on an international poster campaign attacking the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and the outgoing EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker.
IN HIS address to ICCP2, Mr Orbán stated that Hungary’s aid money for persecuted Christians was not “provided to agencies” but dispersed “directly”. This refusal to work with aid agencies is worrying.
Mr Orbán’s government has a record of misdirecting public funds. On 3 September, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) said that Hungary misused more European Union funds than any other country. It recommended repayment of €371 million. Transparency International reports “systemic corruption in Hungary’s public procurement landscape”. It is hard to see how Hungary Helps could be isolated from these difficulties.
Mr Orbán and Mr Semjén were not the only speakers billed to address ICCP2. As well as Christian leaders from three continents, President Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, was due to speak — but mysteriously disappeared from the programme. I tried to obtain journalist accreditation with a view to writing a piece for the Church Times, but was refused a press pass. The Hungarian embassy in London, meanwhile, posted on Twitter the alt-Right Breitbart Media’s reporting of the conference.
Perhaps that tells us all that we need to know about the sympathies of the constituency that the conference was intended to engage.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.